Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book: A Canticle For Leibowitz; and the Nuclear Question

I just finished reading A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. It is a remarkable book, a classic in science fiction writing (though it really doesn't strike me as too sci-fi). Though it was first published in 1960, the style of it seems like something that could have been written today; the storytelling is superb, somewhat satirical, and there's an almost absurd sense to it, verging on comical, but not in a ridiculous way. Maybe more in an existential way, but don't take that to mean it's some dense philosophical novel. It's very readable and accessible, despite the oft-used Latin, which is usually explained, or otherwise just there for atmosphere. The novel does, though, have important underlying themes-- namely, the cyclical course of history, the conflict between the church and secular society, and of course the nuclear threat. For, this book is about a post apocalyptic world slowly rebuilding itself after near annihilation in the mid-20th century. The book is in three parts (Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, and Fiat Voluntas Tua), each set roughly 600 years apart. 

Thus, Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man) begins in the 25th century. The country (we hear nothing of the other continents until part three), or what little is left of it, is nearly totally illiterate-- immediately after "the Flame Deluge" the people rampaged against learning, proudly calling themselves Simpletons and burning books, as well as killing scientists, and later, anyone who could read. Only the the surviving Roman Catholic Church, centered in New Rome (somewhere, seemingly, roundabout St Louis) maintains learning of any kind. 

The Church preserves scraps and remnants of books in a monastery in the Southwest Desert, run by the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, set up by Leibowitz (an electrical engineer of the 20th century) for just such a purpose during the book burnings. Compare to what the Irish monks did in the dark age after Rome fell. The monks copy the now largely incomprehensible but highly venerated, almost worshipped works of science in the 20th century, things like circuit diagrams and other texts and literature. They do this in the hopes that someday, someone will understand them and be able to rebuild to pre-Deluge science, technology and culture. 

The section focuses on Francis Gerard, a novice monk who finds, during a Lenten fast, an old bomb shelter containing a box that holds within it scraps that appear to be the property of Leibowitz himself, which eventually end up contributing to Leibowits being canonized as a saint. It's a hard life for Francis in the monastery, but the world outside is worse, full of monsters (genetic mutants) and roving bands of highwaymen and tribal folk. 

Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) is set in 3174, in a time of building war between growing city-states of south-central "America" and the nomadic herders on the Central Plains, as well as a time of renewed abilities in science, including the rediscovery of electricity; rather like the European Renaissance. In the microcosm of the same monastery, we see the split growing between secular science and Church-run science growing, really the basic split between science and faith/morals

Finally, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done) is set in 3781. The world has progressed beyond even what the 20th century had, complete with space travel and even extra-solar colonies. That same monestary lives on, despite its duty to preserve the old knowledge being now unnecessary. There is a new cold war between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition. There are nuclear incidents, and the book culminates in ruminations on free will, good and evil, euthanasia, and again the cyclical nature of history, whether it is inherent. 

I have avoided giving many details so as not to spoil this jewel of a book for any of you who may wish to read it (highly recommended). I wish they'd had us read this in school, though of course, the Church vs Science/State issue would have been too risque for a public high school. But the discussions would have been enjoyable, I always liked classroom discussions like that. And the themes are important, and worth thinking about. That's probably why I've long been a fan of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres in books and movies. 

I have often though of nuclear weapons as humanity's greatest test. Well, not a test so much, as tests are administered from outside; more a situation that will really allow us to find out what we're made of. We either get a handle on our animal rage and control our apelike tribalism and hate, or else we die. Nuclear holocaust is not probably something we could survive, certainly civilization would not. And the idea that we'd eventually build up to this level, even if it took thousands of years, seems to me unlikely. 

For so many things to fall back into place, cultural, philosophical, technological, governmental, religious... sometimes it seems to me that high-tech civilization may have been a lucky accident. Like the evolution of humans itself-- the rise of such intelligent creatures depended on a lot of historical luck. If the climate in Africa hadn't changed from forests to grassland, we might still be howling in the trees. Or even if it had, but we hadn't adapted just as we did, we'd be extinct, or maybe just living like baboons, who also live in grasslands, quadrupedal and not all that bright. If (some of) the Greeks hadn't ditched the myths for that little window of philosophy they gave us, our society might never have been. Study the history of science, and you will see that this is so; the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilizations had science, yes, but never a Renaissance, never a truly secular, empirical culture. Until Imperial Europeans imposed it. There's no guarantee they'd have ever gotten there, though of course we'll never know. 

There is much to feel despair about in the world today. I find myself, when I allow myself to think long on it, almost totally stopped, knocked into inaction by thoughts of mass extinction, climate change, ecological rape, resource extraction run amok, chemical pollution, overfishing, dead rivers, the loss of the Amazon's forests, the slide in America and elsewhere towards fascism, overpopulation, famine and disease in the Third World, the widening wealth gap, even just the horrible environments we set up for ourselves to live in. But behind it all, and almost undiscussed, is the nuclear threat.

Oh I know there's the very public Iran debacle, and North Korea. Definitely both are a concern, and the fewer countries that have such weapons, the better. But North Korea having a few nukes with short range and pretty bad engineering, and Iran trying to attain them, worry me far less than the thousands upon thousands owned by the USA, Russia, and China, and to a lesser extent, the UK and France. Also quite worrisome are the Pakistani and Indian nukes, two countries that hate each other, and of course, little ol' war hawk Israel which almost certainly has them. With nuclear India and Pakistan on one side, and Israel on the other, you can see why Iran would want such weapons, though they deny it. 

I remember being taught in English class back in high school about foreshadowing: if the author, even in passing, mentions, say, a gun, chances are good that someone's going to use it eventually. This is my concern with nuclear weapons. Sure, the Cold War is more or less over (though Putin's Russia and quasi-Fascist America seem almost eager to resume it), and while it's been over 65 years since a full scale nuclear bomb has been used in war, the potential remains. The likelihood almost seems to increase, the longer we hold these missiles of death, hold them by the thousands. To say nothing of dirty bombs used by terrorists or rogue nations. 

Everything is on the line with this issue. I heard a quote not too long ago, something like "there is no ecological justice without social justice" meaning that social justice is more important. Makes sense in its way. You know, get the Third World, everyone really, educated, healthy, and stable; birth rates will fall, people won't have to denude their environment for sheer survival, etc. With the nuclear issue, it is made very clear: if we save all the forests and oceans, keep the whales and tigers and pandas alive, if we switch to clean energy and save the Appalachian hills, if we get Clean Air and Clean Rivers and more roadless areas and stop soil erosion... but go ahead and have a nuclear war, what the fuck does it matter? It's one thing for civilization to collapse from Peak Oil or Global Climate Change, but it's quite another to nuke ourselves into annihilation. 

Lastly, here's something weird I found out on Wikipedia. The USA's first nuclear test was named Trinity, and India's first was named Smiling Buddha. That these names would be chosen for the ugliest weapons the world has ever seen does not give me much hope. 


  1. Nuclear weapons are funny things. From a nation state perspective they're really only useful as long as you're the only one who has them. As soon as the other side gets them then they become completely useless, just expensive and dangerous drags on your military resources. You don't dare use them directly as to do so would provoke a devastating counterattack (i.e. MAD). And you don't dare beat your opponent too badly with conventional forces as they will then be forced to use their nukes against you. So nukes lead to a sort of military paralysis. The only use they seem to have is for beating up on weaker opponents, which is pretty screwed up.

    There is a theory that the reason why SETI hasn't found evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations in all the years it's been listening is because as soon as a technological civ evolves they discover these world-annihilating technologies and destroy themselves relatively quickly. A sobering thought.

    1. So nukes lead to a sort of military paralysis.

      Well I'm all for THAT. So, uh... nukes for everyone? :\

      As for the SETI thing, I've heard that too. There's also this classic reason: